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In August of 2002, my extended family reunited on the island Jamaica to say good-bye to my uncle, Vincent Lee, a man whose laughter was as prodigious as his appetite for life. Unc died very suddenly: leaving his wife, children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews without the only patriarch we’d known since my grandfather’s passing  30 years prior. To say that our collective loss felt like an amputation would be an understatement.

Still, the family agreed that it would have been a disservice to remember Unc by dressing in black, beating our chests and howling at the moon, so the tone of our gathering was decidedly “better to have loved and lost…,” if not downright celebratory.

Courtesy Olive Rose Kemble

The other cause for celebration that summer was my cousin Dominic’s imminent departure for boarding school in Pennsylvania. One of the youngest of our tribe, Dominic was born and raised in Kingston, a straight A student and the kind of competitive swimmer who brought as much intensity, focus and determination (to win) to the swimming pool as he did the classroom. That he excelled in both arenas was no accident. In fact, when he was a toddler his mother once told me that her primary goal as a parent was to “make sure that when I unleash my children upon society, I’ll be making a positive contribution, as opposed to burdening the world with a potential  liability.”

With that mission accomplished, Dominic was ready to make a splash in uncharted waters.

Courtesy Matthew R. Wendel Photography 

But not before getting an earful from his elders on the eve of his departure.

When you get to campus, try an extra-curricular activity that’s out of your comfort zone,” encouraged one cousin. “You never know where or when you might discover a new passion.

You’re going into a different culture,” my mother advised. “And though the language is the same, the accents are very different. This may cause you some discomfort at first, but don’t let this inhibit you from engaging with the other students. Observe. Be curious. Ask questions.

Education is everything,” said a grand-uncle. “It is the great equalizer. You can play hard, but I want you to work harder because the choices you make today will have an impact on the rest of your life.

And then a close family friend, Jennifer, offered her insights:

Dominic,” she began, in the no-nonsense tone that serves her so well as a South Florida prosecutor, “if the police ever stop you on campus, on the street or while driving a car– always keep both hands in plain sight, maintain your composure, do not raise your voice and do not allow the encounter to escalate. No matter what they say or do, your responses must be ‘Yes, Sir. No, Sir.’

I can still hear sound effect of a needle scratching across a record every time I recall that moment. Jennifer’s words felt like a slap across the face. My brain scrambled to reboot. I was insulted that the best she could offer the best & brightest of our family was a primer on Police Protocol 101. And I was offended that she’d done so without at least consulting Dominic’s parents first. How dare she. What the hell was she thinking?

I now realize that Jennifer said what she did because she was thinking. Whereas I had visions of unicorns and rainbows dancing in my head: neither of which would have served a muscular, 6’3” 15-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood much good given the whole new world he was about to encounter.

Courtesy Dominic Lee

As a first generation American who’d grown up in a family of mostly girls, I was completely ignorant of what I now know to be “the talk.” As were my cousins, who also grew up in the States. Owing to the homogeneity of Jamaica’s population (where my parents were born and raised), “the talk” was as a foreign concept to their generation as mine, so chances are even my big brother was spared the father-son chat which is practically a rite of passage when African-American boys reach a certain age. The age when they transition from looking cute & cuddly to threatening– as would Dominic– to an untrained eye.

I have been thinking about perception, reality and the potentially lethal power of an untrained eye  a lot ever since the shooting death of a boy (who was just two years older than Dominic) became headline news. And while a Florida jury subsequently acquitted Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, of second degree murder charges, the self-appointed (though unskilled and unsanctioned by law enforcement) neighborhood  watchman will never elude the fact that he is now a cautionary tale of how wrong assumptions can break hearts and end lives.

Courtesy People Magazine 

Consider Zimmerman’s words the night he called 911 after spotting Martin walking though the gated community– where Zimmerman lived and Martin was staying with his father’s fiancée.

Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy. … This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about. … Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. … Something’s wrong with him. He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what he’s doing. … These assholes, they always get away.

We now know that Martin had a cell phone in one hand, a bag of snacks in the other and that he did not get away that night. But Zimmerman’s drive-by assessment of the 17-year-old as “a real suspicious guy,” “up to no good” and an “asshole,” his palpable level of frustration as he spoke to the 911 operator and his rush to judgement all struck a chord with people who have been on the receiving end of unwarranted prejudicial treatment in the past.

From the usual subjects…

Courtesy Eunîque Jones Photography

To those snared in the dragnet cast over one-quarter of the world’s population since September 11, 2001…

To those with enough self-awareness to acknowledge having been the beneficiary of white privilege.

Much to the credit of mankind, people around the world were appalled by the unprovoked confrontation that cut one life short and revived dormant discussions on race, racism and the alternate reality black men are forced to navigate on a daily basis. As a show of solidarity with the young victim, supporters from every strata of society contributed to a campaign called “I am Trayvon Martin” by posting pictures of themselves, on-line, wearing a hoodie similar to the one Martin wore the night he was killed. Some of the more high-profile participants included elected officials, sports icons and music moguls. And one of the more arresting images came from Howard University Medical school, where an image of hooded students was juxtaposed another of the same group wearing white doctor’s coats.

For all its good intentions, my feelings about this movement have been mixed from the outset for a variety of reasons. Not because I don’t agree that it is shallow to equate a person’s worth with their dress, but because it would be intellectually dishonest of me to pretend that human beings do not respond to uniforms. Right or wrong: just as the soon-to-be doctors at Howard might expect to be regarded differently when they upgrade from blue scrubs to the coveted laboratory coat upon graduation, so too might a young man wearing a hoodie and sagging pants with a slumped posture want to consider how he might attract extra scrutiny merely because his dress and affect mirror those of a sub-set of young, black men who have been the perpetrators of extremely anti-social behavior. I suppose this is why seeing  a photo-shopped image of Martin Luther King, Jr wearing a hoodie was so jarring to me.

Granted, it is ironic that the visionary who inspired a nation (that seemed incapable of living up to her founding principle that all men are created equal) to judge one another based on the content of a person’s character was also the man who changed minds via the sheer power of imagery. But Dr. King’s suit was literally his armor. And his always pristine manner of dressing was one of the mightiest weapons in his arsenal. As was his non-violent composure, even when having to negotiate with state-sanctioned barbarians.

Montgomery Alabama, 1958

But as the alter ego of this particular civil rights icon-in-a-hoodie was stamped onto the consciousness of billions of children around the world, I felt that my generation owed it to them to fill in the back story.

Coretta & MLK, Jr. walk  in the James Meredith March, 1966

The story of women like Rosa Parks, for example: who was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first black woman to be mistreated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But she was the first victim of such unimpeachable character that, once arrested, NAACP organizers immediately rallied to her defense after identifying her as the best possible candidate for seeing through the legal battle (to dismantle segregation laws) that would surely ensue. Parks, in the minds of her advocates, would be regarded as a sympathetic victim to blacks and white. And they (her lawyers) were right.

Rosa Parks following her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956 

Was it fair for a civil right’s organization not to challenge all instances of racial discrimination reported during the Jim Crow era with as much vigor and publicity as that devoted to Mrs. Parks’ case, owing to other victims having had arrest records? Or having being deemed women of ill-repute? Or for having had less than stellar reputations in the community (as has been documented)? Of course it wasn’t. But the NAACP understood that the fight for fairness was anything but fair. And they were trying to change the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans who could not identify with the plight of people they neither knew, nor cared to know.

In exemplars like Parks and King, however, it was impossible to deny their humanity– thus their insistence upon human and civil rights– when their values so obviously mirrored those of the larger culture…

Coretta greets MLK, Jr. outside a Montgomery courthouse in 1956

When they presented themselves in a way that reflected high self-esteem and self-respect…

When their commitments to family values were irrefutable…

Courtesy Flip Schulke Photography

And when their non-violent example to followers proved potent enough to inspire the masses and move mountains.

MLK, Jr. homecoming after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964

It goes without saying that the hypocrisy of moral giants like King and Parks once having had to prove themselves to a majority population– that demonstrated neither the social, spiritual nor political will required to make America actually live up to her Constitution– is not lost on me. When I consider their examples, I realize how lucky I was to have been raised at the tail end of a time when the bar for excellence was set so high. But it also makes wonder about the negative ramifications for boys and girls being raised today, who have yet to become acquainted with the dreams (and dress codes) of their forefathers.

Courtesy Sabrina Fulton 

I still struggle with the two faces of Trayvon that have come to light following his death. I held my breath when the baby-faced portrait was first released to the media– because given his age at the time of the shooting, the picture of him in the maroon tee-shirt was likely not the most current in existence. Not by several years. And we now know that subsequent images of Martin only undermined any arguments that he might have been a total innocent. (Which, I realize, should have been irrelevant for the purposes of determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.) But when I hear pundits and journalists dismissing Trayvon’s self-destructive choices– including truancy, expulsion from school, drug use and alleged theft– as no big deal, I vehemently disagree.

The only reason black people have come as far as we have in this country, in spite of  systemic, institutionalized efforts to nullify our existence, is because we once took our parents at their word when they told us “You have to be twice as good as your white peers to go half as far.” Because children were taught to kept their eyes on the prize with a mono-focus that left no room for bullshitting, ever. Because the public figures who represented us– from movie stars to men in uniform– understood that the privilege came with tremendous responsibilities.

Lena Horne with Tuskegee Airmen in 1945

This is not to say that I think Martin should have been the Jackie Robinson of the adolescent set. But there is a shadow side to 21st century living in the African-American community that would make Dr. King weep in his grave. The substitution of gangsterism for masculinity, the misogyny masquerading as musicality in rap, the abdication of responsibility to women and children by the men who once protected us with their lives and the unchecked homophobia cultivated in our churches are all indefensible and unacceptable realities that can only be ignored at our own peril.

Such a backdrop could not have boded well for Martin– who carried the legacy of his race on his young, narrow shoulders when he was, in effect, put on trial in that Sanford, Florida courtroom– even though he’d done nothing wrong the day he was profiled, targeted and ultimately stalked to his death.

I am astounded that George Zimmerman is a free man today. And terrified by the prospect that someone with so little judgement and such poor conflict-resolution skills has not lost the right to carry a firearm in his home state. And yet the pain he has inflicted upon the black community pales in comparison to the self-inflicted wounds we continue to visit upon ourselves. A house-cleaning is long overdue. And to pretend otherwise not only sabotages our position when supporting truly deserving African-Americans (like the First Family), but offers a woefully inadequate road map for young men and women striving to be the next Barack and Michelle Obama.

My Aunt Rosie and I cannot see eye-to-eye on this point: her position being that how Martin looked and carried himself should not have mattered in a court of law, because it was not he, but Zimmerman who was on trial. And I would never argue with such logic. But if the case was also a de facto battle for public opinion (which it was, in my opinion); it can be argued that some of Martin’s choices did not help his case. Including his association with witnesses like Rachel Jeantel: who proved detrimental to the prosecution’s attempt to portray Martin as a sympathetic victim thanks to her naked hostility, lack of respect for authority figures, unintelligible responses and a body language that implied she had better things to do with her time than sit around and rehash the tragic, final moments of her friend’s life.

At best, Jeantel’s inappropriate demeanor made me wonder how many children are ignorant of the fact that we are all judged by the company we keep. At worst, I put myself in the shoes of Sybrina Fulton and Tracey Martin: Trayvon’s parents, who epitomized grace under ridiculous pressure, as they sat and watched this young woman speak for their son.

But why should she know better when so many elders are preaching one thing in public, while practicing something else entirely in the privacy of their homes?

I have a hard time reconciling my Aunt Rosie’s hyperbole (re: how Martin’s missteps should not have been used against him throughout the trial), for example, with the woman who is constantly reminding her grandson, Noah, that she expects him to comport himself like a gentleman at all times. Noah can mimic his GiGi’s lectures, chapter and verse, on the merits of combing his hair, making sure that the waistband of his pants align with that of his anatomy and the importance of having good manners inside and out of his home. He’s even become adept at pointing out those who violate GiGi’s rules when they’re in the park, or at a mall or running errands around town.

And Noah is just eight-years-old.

Courtesy Gasuza Lwanga Photography

To her credit, Auntie maintains the drumbeat because she knows that little boys who look like Noah are afforded zero margin of error before being dismissed as worthless in this country. She stays on her grandson’s case because unlike George Bush– who could be elected president in spike of his past as a slacker who abused alcohol for decades, and Mitt Romney– who came damn close to being president in spite of his well-documented past as a high school bully– Noah will get no such passes in this lifetime. And this does not even take into account the the double-standards and disrespect Noah may have to endure should he follow in the footsteps of our current President– whether the questioning of his academic credentials or his US citizenship– that reflect our country’s schizophrenic attitudes towards black men.

Sure, kids like Noah will always get the message that his personal appearance, words and actions can mean the difference between life and death (even if it kills his GiGi!). But what about the kid who may never benefit from such tried and true wisdom? They are the ones I worry about the most. Especially when I see pictures of celebrities (who have the unique privilege of slipping into and out of a variety of personas, easy peasy) like the one posted below: which always fail to mention the unintended consequences that tend to befall our boys in the hoodie, should they encounter an armed stranger with a grudge… and an untrained eye.

And after the lessons learned when Jennifer schooled me on the real facts of life 11 years ago: I believe the most dangerous thing I could do to any child would be to paint a picture of the world as I wished it to be… as opposed to preparing them to survive in the world as it really is.

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